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Volume 23, Number 1
January/February 2007

Basic Skills Revisited

Under NCLB, the pendulum swings too far—again


The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and most state accountability policies judge school quality exclusively by student performance on standardized tests. This form of accountability has encouraged a renewed emphasis on basic skills, reigniting a debate that has raged throughout American history: whether basic skills can (or should) be taught at the expense of other objectives.

Here's how NCLB distorts the curriculum in the direction of basic math and reading skills. First, because high-stakes tests measure math and reading, educators have incentives to shift time and resources from other important goals toward these subjects. Sanctions result from poor performance on math and reading tests, but not from inadequate learning in social studies, physical education, the arts, and science, or from students' failure to develop noncognitive skills and attitudes—conflict resolution skills, physical fitness, or creativity, for example—that are equally important outcomes of schooling.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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